Film Review: A Will for the Woods

Initially single-minded issue documentary about green burial segues into big-hearted and thought-provoking meditation on dying gracefully.
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Say what you will about A Will for the Woods, it doesn’t waste much time attacking its target. The collaboratively made film (four directors are credited) doesn’t go on about the mechanized and manufactured evils of the modern American burial industry. Instead, much like the kindly characters at its core, it tries to focus on the positive. Namely: What is a better way to lay our dead to rest?

Initially, the film can’t help but seem like an advertisement for what are collectively called “green burial services.” The practice is typified by an earth-friendly approach—not dissimilar, incidentally, from traditional Jewish burial practices—that eschews putting anything in the ground that won’t decompose. At a minimum that means no embalming chemicals or shrouds made of artificial fibers, and coffins made out of natural materials (wood, generally) instead of the pricey metal and plastic sarcophagi that line the display walls of most funeral homes. In some instances, it also involves burying the dead in naturally preserved forests or grasslands under minimally noticeable stones instead of artificially landscaped and manicured lawns.

The more ineffable aspects of this holistic approach are illustrated by the film’s main character, Clark Wang. A cheery Michigan-born psychiatrist with an impish smile, quiet voice, and a thing for playing accordion in polka bands, Wang’s first sustained appearance in the film shows him and his partner Jane Ezzard checking out his future coffin at a friend’s house. “Perfect!” Wang calls out after lying down in it, happy that it fits. Wang, who is in the middle of prolonged radiation treatments to battle a steadily encroaching lymphoma, is determined that his death will be not be a burden on the environment but a gift back to the Earth.

Fortunately, A Will for the Woods doesn’t try to strong-arm Wang’s story into a Forks over Knives-style lecture. There are times, though, when a few minutes of perspective could have helped frame the issue. One of the more fascinating side-trips the film takes from tracking Wang through his declining health is to a funeral industry trade show in Las Vegas, where the business of death couldn’t feel more removed from any connection to real life. There are carnival-like booths offering everything from “Earth orbit services” to “DNA to diamonds.” The background of one ironically framed shot shows the Luxor, a temple of consumerism modeled after a lavish temple to death. There is a too-brief scene with a roomful of defensive traditional funeral directors that helps establish some of the distrust and inertia that the movement has to overcome.

Instead of entering into the larger debate, however, the filmmakers focus on Wang himself. The increasingly death-shrouded narrative is minimal and unforced, with almost the only music heard being that played on the piano by Wang himself. He sees the green burial approach as something of a balm, saying in one dark moment that without knowing what was awaiting his body, his death would feel “so meaningless.” The film makes at the least a strong aesthetic argument for this, alternating images of Wang in clinical settings for his care with serene shots of the forest where he plans his body to be interred. Like many documentaries that call for more Earth-centric approaches to living, the film has an aspirational gloss to it that’s most pronounced in those scenes.

But A Will for the Woods is more contemplative than preachy. This spirit might, ironically, limit its audience more than if it had drawn a harder and angrier line. But that generosity makes for a finer film.

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